When I was in college, majoring in Philosophy, I would read pages and pages of assigned reading and still not really understand what I was reading. Has that ever happened to you? You read a paragraph and can’t say in your own words what you just read. You read it a second, a third, a fourth, even a fifth time, and still nothing. Actually, I knew my brain was so impenetrable as far back as high school, when Geometry made sense only the year after, when I was taking Trigonometry; and Trigonometry made sense the year after, when I was taking Analytic Geometry. And I have absolutely no recollection of Calculus, although my transcript says I got an A. It isn’t something I can control, no matter how much I try. If I had my way, everything I read would make sense immediately. Everything anyone tried to explain to me, I would understand just like that. Instead, it might take a couple of hours, or days, or even years, before the dots connect, and the cloud lifts, and the mystery is revealed.
I did learn sometimes it was important to the teacher that every single student understand everything before beginning the new lesson. It wasn’t realistic, but that was the hope. And if a student didn’t understand, it held up the whole class. So occasionally students are forced to say they understand, even when they do not. You never want to be the one who holds up the class. But when it comes time for exams, you wish you had told the truth, and asked more questions, or stayed after school.
When I was in third grade or so, my grandmother would take me aside now and again and attempt to explain some profound mystery, some truth of the faith, or what I had done and why I was being punished. [It seemed I was punished a lot in those days.] I didn’t always understand what she was talking about, but I knew she was deadly serious when she got that look in her eyes, and her index finger went up to emphasize the point she was trying to make. I soon discovered she was wrapping up her little homily when she asked the question, “So, do you see?” It was never a really difficult question, if I had been paying attention, but that was not always the case. Besides, I didn’t want to disappoint her yet again by asking her to repeat what she had just said, and I was just then beginning to grasp the nuances of language, and did not yet distinguish between “seeing” and “understanding.” So, without really “understanding,” I would say, “Yes, I see.” That meant more importantly that she would let me go about my business. Even as a child, I had things to do and places to go. Fortunately, she never asked me what exactly it was I “saw.”
In this age of Google and YouTube and Facebook, of High Def, 3D and digital image resolution, we place a lot of importance on how things look, but not necessarily on understanding their meaning. We are flooded with so much information, that we think more of it equals understanding. We pay attention to external appearances but fail to see what’s deep down inside. Commercial advertising takes advantage of this human predisposition. They want us to believe whatever they’re selling is always better than it looks. So if we buy their product, we will also achieve great personal success, popularity, and wealth. It works the other way, too. When we see a person who looks messy or plain or weirdly dressed, we might assume that is who they truly are. We might not say it, but what we “see” with our eyes affects what we “understand” with our hearts, and what affects our understanding affects our behavior. Speaking to the prophet Samuel, God says, “Not as people see does God see, because they see the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” Appearances can be deceiving. A person’s appearance might completely obscure or mask what’s going on inside. So when we are willing to admit our inability to see rightly, we can ask God to heal us. But if we are so arrogant as to claim complete knowledge and understanding on our own, we are saying we are never wrong. Will we even hear what Jesus has to tell us? “If you were blind, you would have no sin. But you say, ’We see,’ so your sin remains.”
There is much about life and love that we have “seen” after being around many years. We know much about God from years of believing, praying and living our faith, from years of Christian formation, participating in the sacraments, from years of living with sickness and health, years of hearing Scripture proclaimed and ministering to the poor, of celebrating the liturgical seasons, of raising families, working for a living, carrying our crosses, and forgiving those who offend us. There is much about God that we have “seen” that we come to certain conclusions about who God is, and we can admit some degree of understanding of God. This shows we are willing to take responsibility for our own faith, which will affect the way we live, the way we treat one another, and the choices that we make. When we admit that we see, when we admit we understand, we are accepting responsibility for acting upon that understanding. Yet after claiming to see and understand, we can still choose to resist the grace of God; we can still choose to reject God’s invitation to live justly and honorably; we can still choose to disregard Jesus’ example of compassion, humility and obedience to the Father. What we are really saying is we should know better. It’s like telling my grandmother I see, and returning to the exact same mistake that got me in trouble in the first place.
The blindness Jesus speaks about is a hardness of heart that characterizes the arrogant and the self-righteous, those who are sure they know exactly what God wants and no one can tell them anything, not even God. They have closed themselves to truths they do not yet know, truths that God might be trying to reveal in some new way. The religious leaders in Jesus’ time sincerely believed that even God would not break the Law of Moses. No one who breaks the Law by healing a blind man on the Sabbath could be a good person. They closed themselves to an experience of God that could have helped them “see” Jesus as the One sent by God for their healing. Today, we can just as easily close ourselves to God when he chooses not to use what we believe essential to any encounter with God, like kneelers or stained glass windows or Latin hymns. Instead, we live our lives convinced we know what we are doing, that we know all there is to know, and believe all there is to be believed, because that’s what we were taught many years ago. We shut the door in God’s face telling him we can “see” just fine without his help. Yet we are really still blind.
This season of Lent, God invites us to see with new eyes what we may have refused to see for so long, to see as God sees – into the heart (and we should start with our own); and if we are unable to “see,” to be willing to ask him to heal our blindness.